Wild Goose Chase in the Skies

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India has announced it will sign the much-trumpeted 126-aircraft MMRCA deal worth $12 billion in September. But will it? Unlikely

At the just concluded eighth edition of the Aero India exhibition in Bangalore, roaring jets provided the perfect backdrop for a big announcement. In September, declared Defence Minister AK Antony, India would finally sign its much ballyhooed $12 billion deal for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).

The tender for these planes was first floated in 2007; the first fighter jet was expected to be inducted by the Indian Air Force in 2012. Today, the sky swayamvara drags on. There are six fighters in contention: Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper (both American), Dassault Aviation’s  Rafale (French), RSK MiG Corp’s MiG-35 (Russian), EADS’s Eurofighter Typhoon (of a four-member European consortium) and Saab’s Jas-39 Gripen (Swedish).

Though India has yet to announce its final choice, American representatives were already strutting about like winners. The US establishment is convinced that the contract should be awarded to either Boeing or Lockheed Martin as payback for a series of favours, including the Indo-US Nuclear Deal and Washington’s lifting of a ban on technology transfers to Indian defence and space organisations; US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who briefed reporters later, even suggested that US firms’ winning the aircraft deal would be consistent with America’s backing of India for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.

Antony, however, wasn’t showing his hand. “This will be a very transparent and an apolitical decision,” he said, echoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s almost ritualistic-by-now emphasis on the ‘rule of law’.

But there are signs that the purchase order may not be signed at all, not for fear of antagonising the US, but for more practical reasons. For one, big-ticket defence purchases almost always attract corruption charges. The embattled Government in New Delhi is already battling several scam allegations. The Congress, with the Bofors ghost still haunting it two decades later, would prefer caution over valour.

Already, the September date is attracting qualifiers. “The deal will be signed in September provided those who lose out don’t put a spoke in the wheel,” Air Chief PV Naik worried out loud. The fear of rubbing key contenders the wrong way has a pragmatic dimension.

The Indian defence establishment, while fully aware of US interests in relation with India’s, is also keen to sustain its old equation with Russia. Technology transfers from Russia have proven easier in the past, and this is expected to continue for two reasons. American defence suppliers, being private, have a business interest in keeping technology close to their chest. Also, US deals tend to get entangled in legal stipulations designed to deny technology to countries seen as errant, the threshold for which has always been low.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Russian PAKFA Sukhoi T-50 fighter aircraft is to be the base design model for the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) joint Indo-Russian programme finalised last December. PAKFA stands for Pers-pektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsyi, which is Russian for ‘advanced tactical frontline fighter’.

The FGFA agreement, valued at $30 billion, is even bigger than the MMRCA deal (though over a longer time span). Under it, some 250 stealth fighters are to be produced for the IAF by 2017, with the development work done by India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Russia’s United Aircraft Corp as equal partners. This is along the lines of the BrahMos venture, under which a supersonic cruise missile has been developed jointly by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia.

Once developed, the FGFA is expected to represent a generational leap from the MMRCA currently being sought. The FGFA venture is also exciting in terms of HAL’s role, which would involve developing some hi-tech fly-by-wire computer systems and other navigational aids, for example, apart from fuselage composites. The deal also gives the IAF access to Glonass, Russia’s advanced navigation system that guides missiles and smart weapons to their precise targets.

According to Naik, the new plane will be a ‘swing role’ fighter aircraft with an ability to fly undetected (the ‘stealth’ aspect), complete with super-cruise and deep strike capabilities that would be sharpened by highly well networked combat software. This would make it comparable to the American F-22 Raptor or F-35 Lightning II, or even the Chinese J-20 that has been making waves of late.

Once the FGFA design is finalised, India will invest $5.5 billion towards the development of six prototypes. The Russian air force is equally keen to induct the fighters, and the two partners would be free to sell them to a third country.

The US, keen to keep up, has meanwhile sent India feelers on the possible co-development of the latest F-35, but Antony has rejected these. “We are already in an agreement with Russia on the FGFA,” he said, “No other country has offered a fifth generation aircraft in the past. We have already taken a decision and there is no going back.”

While jet development can suffer both cost and time overruns, and India’s own record here has been dismal, defence experts see good reason to expect the FGFA programme to adhere to its timeline. The BrahMos experiment worked well, and this is now seen as the new template for an Indo-Russian venture. Also, Russia needs the jets as much as India does, which should hasten things. “It’s a win-win deal where India can partner, lend expertise, learn and even make money,” says a defence insider.

If the FGFA programme moves fast enough, the MMRCA deal would just be a stopgap measure—perhaps even a dispensable one. Of course, the IAF might be rendered vulnerable in the interim, but not as badly as you might think. India already has a Sukhoi contract with Russia for the supply of 270 Su-30 fighters, nearly half of which have been delivered.

Critics, however, say the IAF needs multi-role jets to complement its heavy Sukhois, which are meant for air dominance. Analyst and retired Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar, who was on the team that evaluated the Hawk trainer in the 1980s, says the MMRCA rationale is that the IAF has too many single-role fighters like the MiG-29 interceptor, deep penetration strike aircraft Jaguar and tactical support plane MiG-27. Most of these are part of an ageing fleet that’s not very combat ready. The IAF’s only multi-role aircraft are the Mirage 2000 and upgraded MiG 21 Bison. Given the Tejas setback, those 126 planes are urgently needed, he argues, and India must act fast. The first 18 fighters would be flown to India, while the rest will have to be manufactured under licence by HAL.

But defence purchases are always dogged by delays. The last major IAF acquisition, the UK-made 66 Advanced Jet Trainer Hawk, was in the works for 22 years. The MMRCA deal should be a lot quicker, hopes Hugh Martin, assistant director, UK Trade and Investment, who’s in Bangalore to push the Eurofighter Typhoon and is pleased by the prospect of an autumn decision. “We are ready if India wants to sign the deal by September,” he says.

The defence insider, however, thinks it unlikely. “The Congress under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will not sign on the dotted line till the end of its term in 2014,” he says. “This deal could turn out to be the carrot that India is dangling to get things done in a fast-changing world where many Western nations are waking up to its importance.”